Maroon Memories: Mark de Vries seals Hearts' place in Europe
AS the last Hearts supporters filed out of Tynecastle having watched their team bring a highly-successful season to a close with victory over Dundee, it was perhaps appropriate they should do so to the strains of Frank Sinatra's My Way.
The Gorgie faithful had seen the Jambos celebrate qualifying for Europe – Mark de Vries’ second-half header earned the home side a 1-0 win over the Tennent’s Scottish Cup finalists – with a lap of honour round the pitch.
It was a moment that few of the fans would have dared dream about when the season kicked off with a 1-1 draw back on August 3 at Dens Park.
They had seen a number of experienced first-team stars depart the club with doubts expressed as to how such individuals would be replaced.
But those sceptics hadn’t bargained on the shrewd forays into the transfer market made by manager Craig Levein, the likes of De Vries, whose second-half winner allowed the striker to finish as Hearts’ top scorer with 15 goals, Jean-Louis Valois, Phil Stamp and Tepi Moilanen all settling in well.
The young manager also instilled an impressive work ethic and team spirit into the dressing-room which helped produce the kind of consistency which is the hallmark of any successful side.
And while skipper Steven Pressley and his men deserved their moment of glory after the final whistle as they took the fans’ applause wearing the special tee-shirts proclaiming their European achievement, there could have been no prouder a man than Levein as the cheers rang out.
When the former Scotland defender accepted the Tynecastle hotseat, he knew there were going to be tough times ahead as he set about slashing the club’s wage bill while attempting to sustain a decent league challenge.
And while the early progress was steady and assured – the odd hiccup apart – this season’s success must rank high on Levein’s list of achievements.
Of course, it has been a team effort and his backroom staff of Peter Houston, John McGlynn and Gary Kirk have all been important cogs in the wheel as the third-placed JT’s finished six points clear of nearest rivals Kilmarnock.
Hearts had gone into the clash having all but qualified for the UEFA Cup, their goal difference so much better than Killie’s that it would have taken a combination of truly astonishing results to deny them. However, it was important for Levein’s outfit to finish the job off in style having slid to defeat in the three previous games.
Pressley, De Vries, Andy Webster and Scott Severin were all just one booking away from a ban at the start of next season but all four played against the Dark Blues. With Austin McCann returning at left-back and Robbie Neilson at right-back, Alan Maybury was moved into a new-look midfield which also included Neil MacFarlane, Severin and youngster Joe Hamill. Despite those changes, the home side always had the edge over their visitors, who could have been forgiven for having one eye on this weekend’s Tennent’s Scottish Cup final against Rangers at Hampden.
Chances, though, were few and far between in what was fairly typical example of an end-of-season encounter.
De Vries and Steven Lovell both missed decent opportunities in the opening half but that was about it as far as the first 45 minutes were concerned.
Hearts, though, had by far the better of the second period, MacFarlane seeing his drive well held by Julian Speroni before De Vries had a strong claim for a penalty turned down by Willie Young after the striker was brought down by Lee Mair with 69 minutes on the clock.
Two minutes later and substitute Gary Wales missed a great chance, the front man somehow knocking De Vries’ cutback wide from six yards.
At that stage, the game looked like drifting towards a stalemate but the introduction of France-bound Stephane Mahe soon paid dividends for Hearts.
The former Celtic star has seen his last season in Scotland wrecked by an Achilles injury but he was given the last 19 minutes to say his farewell to the home fans - and how he made the most of his opportunity.
The defender came on to a standing ovation and promptly won another huge cheer when winning his first challenge with Fabian Caballero - who was later lucky to escape a red card after appearing to elbow Andy Webster on the edge of the Hearts box - and following that up with a crunching tackle on Nacho Novo.
The mere appearance of the Frenchman seemed to lift the crowd and it was fitting he should play a key role in the winning goal.
Picking the ball up wide on the left 12 minutes from time, he charged forward, beat Novo’s challenge and sent in an inch-perfect cross for De Vries to send a superb diving header past the helpless Speroni.
It was a dream ending to Mahe’s Tynecastle career and a moment enjoyed as much by the player as his team-mates.
Hearts: Moilanen, Maybury, Pressley (c), Webster, Neilson, McCann (Mahe 71) , Severin, De Vries, MacFarlane, Hamill (Valois 64), Weir (Wales 50). Subs not used: McKenzie, Boyack.
Dundee: Speroni, Wilkie, Mair, Hernandez (Carranza 78), Brady, Nemsadze (Jablonski 68), Rae, Smith, Cabellero, Novo, Lovell (Burchill 76). Subs not used: Langfield, khizanishvili.
Ref: W Young.